By James Wood
Even though the Empty Hearts feature members of Blondie, the Cars, the Chesterfield Kings and the Romantics — and even though their name was chosen from Little Steven Van Zandt's super-secret list of unused band names — this is no cynically constructed supergroup.
Featuring Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer Clem Burke, guitarist Elliot Easton, bassist Andy Babiuk and lead singer/rhythm guitarist Wally Palmar, the Empty Hearts have parlayed a combined lifetime of rock into their self-titled debut. Their new album is a raucous collection of tunes shaped by Fifties American roots rock, Sixties British Invasion and Seventies garage-punk.
I recently spoke to Easton about the Empty Hearts, his signature Gibson Tikibird and the 30th anniversary of the Cars’ Heartbeat City.
GUITAR WORLD: When did the idea for the Empty Hearts begin?
The germ of the idea started with Andy [Babiuk]. The Chesterfield Kings weren’t doing anything and Andy called me up and said, “What do you think about doing a band with me, you, Clem Burke and Wally Palmer from the Romantics?”
I wasn’t doing much at the time so I told him that if he could get it together, I was in. Andy is such a great organizer and motivator and put everything together. We found that we liked each other’s vibe and enjoyed each other’s company. Everything about it really felt good.
How would you describe the album?
It’s a reflection and celebration of all of our influences that went into making us the musicians we are. Recalling those early days of innocence when you played music for the sheer joy of it. We really wanted to make a record that reminded us of why we got into music in the first place. You hear some Who, Beatles and our garage rock influences. It’s all stuff we loved as kids starting out.
What was the recording process like?
Most of this record was made with the four of us interacting with each other on the studio floor. I think when you have four people playing together all at once, it adds a fifth element. When you have overtones of guitar chords mixing in with the cymbals, it generates a live-vibe kind of atmosphere.
Will the Empty Heart be touring to support the new album?
Yes. One of our main goals is to be a touring band. We’ll be going to Japan in October and warming up with a few shows on the East Coast. Even though everyone in the group comes from a known band, we’re still new and have to establish ourselves. This first bunch of gigs is to get over that first hump and have people understand what we’re all about.
What can you tell me about your new signature Gibson Tikibird?
My relationship with Gibson goes back to 1979 when I had a Signature SG from the Gibson Custom Shop. This time around, I worked with Gibson USA to do a signature model that was a little more affordable. It packs a lot of bang for the buck. It’s a reverse Firebird with ’57 classics instead of the mini-humbuckers. It also has four switches: a coil cut for the neck pickup; coil splitter for the treble pickup; an in phase/out phase when both pickups are on. The fourth switch is a blower switch, which bypasses all of the wiring on the guitar and just sends the bridge pickup to the jack full-on.
I specified a cool custom Firebird color from the Sixties called Gold Poly Mist. The last personal touch was a little Tiki instead of the Firebird stamp on the pickguard.
The Cars' Heartbeat City album turns 30 this year. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about that album?
The first thing that comes to mind when I think about that album was working with Mutt Lange and how meticulous he was as a producer and how honored it was to make it with him. I remember we were in London for the better part of a year making that record and can honestly say I did more tuning then I did playing [laughs]. He would have me re-tune after every pass and every take.
Can you tell me more about your experience working with Mutt?
He just had endless energy and was there for us 100 percent. That’s the thing I marveled at. He wasn’t just meticulous with me, though. One morning I was relaxing and watching TV in the living room of the house we had rented. Ben [Orr] was getting ready to go into the studio to work on some bass, and I remember wishing him luck as he left.
As the day went by, I did a few things and later that night I found myself stretched back out on the couch watching TV. That was when Ben finally came home. I said, “Hey man! How’d it go today?” Ben said, “Well, we're starting to get a sound” [laughs]. I learned a lot from making the record with Mutt. It made me an even tighter, better player in the studio. I put that album up there with our best work.
What excites you the most about the Empty Hearts?
I’m really looking forward to getting the music out in front of people, writing more songs and albums and watching this band become even tighter. I really like being in this band. There’s no drama. Just a lot of joking and laughing and having a good time. It reminds me of why I got into the music in the first place and how much fun those garage bands were.
Rehearsing in a friend’s basement and playing just for the sheer love of it. We don’t feel like we have to prove anything anymore. We just want to have a great time playing music that’s been encoded into our DNA.
The Empty Hearts 2014 Tour Dates:
10/16 Londonderry, NH Tupelo Music Hall
10/17 Ardmore, PA Ardmore Music Hall
10/18 Brooklyn, NY The Knitting Factory
10/19 Cranston, RI RICPA - Park Theatre
10/22 Tokyo, Japan Billboard Live (2 shows)
10/23 Tokyo, Japan Billboard Live (2 shows)
For more about the Empty Hearts, visit theemptyhearts.com.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.